On Monday, Dictionary.com announced that it had selected “misinformation” as 2018’s word of the year.
Defined as, “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead,” the online dictionary said, “the rampant spread of misinformation poses new challenges for navigating life in 2018. As a dictionary, we believe understanding the concept is vital to identifying misinformation in the wild, and ultimately curbing its impact.”
Different from its more insidious sibling “disinformation,” which is defined as, “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda,” misinformation is, in online parlance, what happens when disinformation goes viral.
In 2018, misinformation has cast a long shadow. The spread of false information continues to plague social media despite, or perhaps because of, the modest efforts made by companies like Facebook and Twitter to better police their platforms.
To their credit, the companies did effectively purge scores of bot accounts that had flooded users’ feeds with false news stories. They also, along with YouTube, successfully banned Alex Jones and his InfoWars conspiracy news outlet.
Unfortunately, recent revelations that Facebook executives’ behind-the-scenes actions seem out of sync with their public assurances to combat misinformation suggest a troubling disconnect.
Now, the toxic misinformation ecosystem that exists online is beginning to have real-world consequences. Misinformation about vaccinations has led to historic outbreaks of previously contained diseases. North Carolina is in the midst of its worst chicken pox outbreak since the vaccine was made available 20 years ago. While the junk science that leads people to believe vaccines are harmful is nothing new, it has received a signal boost on social media by the exact same bots and trolls that meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
More disturbing is troubled individuals like Cesar A. Sayoc Jr., the President Trump fanatic who sent more than a dozen mail bombs to the president’s political adversaries in October. Details about Sayoc’s online activities, as well as his van, which was covered in alt-right memes, is a chilling glimpse into how misinformation can warp one’s worldview and, subsequently, one’s behavior.
While social media is currently the most effective delivery system for misinformation, the phenomenon will thrive as long as people’s confirmation biases compel them to seek out and process information in a way that reinforces their pre-existing ideologies, and as long as there are public figures who are willing to intentionally mislead the pubic for political gain.
These disinformation campaigns birth the misinformation that muddies the waters of public discourse and casts doubt on fact-based, objective reality. This year we’ve seen numerous efforts by politicians and media personalities to deliberately misinform, from suggestions that the migrant caravan headed for the U.S. border was full of terrorists and gang members to allegations that the Parkland school shooting survivors were paid crisis actors.
This week, several right-wing news outlets floated a theory that the iconic photo of a migrant woman and her two young children fleeing a tear gas attack at the U.S.-Mexico border was staged.
Even armed with facts, misinformation is pernicious and difficult to debunk. That work is made doubly difficult when the president of the United States routinely and recklessly deals in disinformation. Last month, the Washington Post fact-checkers reported that Trump has made 6,420 false or misleading claims since becoming president, an average of 10 claims a day.
In the past month, Trump has dismissed a CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of a journalist, gave credence to baseless allegations of election fraud and refuted a dire climate change report produced by his own administration.
These insinuations, even when demonstrably false, are believed by many Trump supporters who, in turn, share the misinformation on social media, making themselves complicit in Trump’s propaganda machine.
That complicity, at times, extends to the news media, which, in the name of objectivity, often reports misinformation as another worthy perspective. Creating such false equivalencies sets a dangerous precedent that is difficult to walk back. We in the press must continue to build trust by remaining steadfast in our role as arbiters of objective truth.
As media consumers, there are concrete steps we can all take to combat misinformation:
— Practice better media literacy by reading with a skeptical eye. Read the whole story, not just the headline. When reading something on social media, check the source and seek out multiple reports on the same story to find any discrepancies or biases.
— Break out of your filter bubble. Social media algorithms are designed to give us more of what we like. Puncture that bubble by actively reading news from sources with differing political leanings than your own.
— Respectfully challenge others who promote misinformation. Present them with facts and question assumptions they have made.
There is no silver bullet. Misinformation persists because it is effective. However, taking the above steps will help you become a more conscientious media consumer, and will go a long way to inoculating you against misinformation’s toxic effects.